A year ago, three of four contenders for the Funny Car championship were upset in the first round of the ACDelco Las Vegas NHRA Nationals.
On Sunday, the two top contenders were defeated and Cruz Pedregon moved up from third to take the points lead heading into the season finale in Pomona, Calif., in two weeks.
Pedregon, the 1992 Funny Car champion, defeated Robert Hight at Las Vegas Motor Speedway before about 22,000 fans to win his second consecutive event title.
“I was just wore out today,” Pedregon said. “I was starting to think I was going to suck the rest of my career.”
He was reflecting on the early 1990s when he drove for well-financed teams. The 14-year veteran returned to the sport full time in 2002 with his own team. Before this year, just one of his 23 titles came while driving his own car.
Other winners in the pro categories were newly crowned Top Fuel champion Tony Schumacher, Jeg Coughlin in Pro Stock and Chris Rivas in Pro Stock Motorcycle.
While Coughlin has virtually clinched his second straight and fourth overall championship, the Funny Car division has five drivers contending for the title.
The Funny Car standings were impacted greatly in the first round when former points leader Tim Wilkerson — who could have won the championship in Las Vegas — and second-place Jack Beckman were defeated.
Top contenders Hight, who lost to Pedregon in the final round, and Tony Pedregon, Cruz’s brother and the reigning champion, made considerable gains.
Leaving Las Vegas, Cruz Pedregon leads Wilkerson by 12 points, Hight by 39, his brother by 62 and Beckman by 64.
For the past two years, the Funny Car points leader after the penultimate Las Vegas event became champion: Tony Pedregon last year and John Force in 2006.
Cruz Pedregon is hoping to relive the end of the 1992 season when he won the last five events to pass Force for the championship.
On Sunday, he eliminated Force in the semifinals and then Hight, who drives for Force, in the final round.
But Pedregon’s biggest win was in the first round when he beat Beckman, who uncharacteristically left too soon and red-lighted.
“I didn’t hardly sleep last night,” Pedregon said. “I didn’t feel like we were going to win today.
“(Beckman) seems to be able to run fast when the track’s fast. I would have liked to have had an easier opponent, but it worked out.”
Beckman fell to fifth place and was distraught over his execution.
“I didn’t do my job,” he said. “I didn’t do my job about four different ways. Some people said, ‘Well, the car smoked the tires anyway.’ I squeezed the throttle and started the timers early, so I stutter-stepped the throttle. I red-lit and because of that the car smoked the tires.”
Pedregon got another break in the second round when veteran Gary Densham was disqualified for leaving early.
After two subpar runs, albeit in victory, Pedregon was dominant against Force and Hight.
“I didn’t want to get caught up in the championship points,” Pedregon said. “I just went out there and tried to maintain my emotions because it seemed like every round was like a championship round.”
And now Pedregon is close to winning his second season title.
Contact reporter Jeff Wolf at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0247.